This extensive 12-day itinerary covers the major highlights of north, south, and central Chile—the Lake District, Torres del Paine National Park, and the Atacama Desert. The Lake District is famous for its charming villages, Prussian-blue lakes, and snow-capped volcanoes. Torres del Paine, on the other hand, is the crown jewel of national parks to explore in Patagonia. Throw in a visit to a Patagonian penguin colony and a jaunt to the mystical and beautiful island of Chiloé, and you have the perfect Chilean adventure.

Highlights

  • Spend time in the towns and villages around Lake Llanquihue in the Lake District
  • Visit the most famous waterfalls and volcanoes in central Chile
  • Walk with Magellanic penguins on Magdalena Island
  • Explore the highlights of Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago & City Tour Santiago
Day 2 Fly to Puerto Montt & Transfer to Puerto Varas Puerto Varas
Day 3 Visit Osorno, Petrohué Falls & Lago Todos Los Santos Puerto Varas
Day 4 Chiloé National Park Tour & Overnight in Puerto Varas Puerto Varas
Day 5 Fly to Punta Arenas Punta Arenas
Day 6 Magdalena Island, Marta Island, & Transfer to Puerto Natales Puerto Natales
Day 7 Milodon Caves & Torres del Paine National Park Puerto Natales
Day 8 Torres del Paine - Full-Day Private Tour Torres del Paine
Day 9 Fly to San Pedro de Atacama & Stargazing Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 10 Atacama Desert - Lagoons & Salt Flats San Pedro de Atacama
Day 11 Atacama Desert - Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 12 Departure From Santiago  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Santiago and city tour

Take a cable car up Cerro San Cristóbal
Take a cable car up Cerro San Cristóbal

Welcome to Chile! Upon arrival at Santiago International Airport, a driver will meet you and transfer you to your hotel. Once settled, get out and experience the pulse of this Latin American metropolis on a guided, half-day tour. Like any great city, that pulse is found in its people, marketplaces, and cuisine. 

Highlights of the tour include:

  • Wandering the aisles of Santiago's labyrinthine Mercado Central and Mercado La Vega. These markets are the beating heart of the city, overflowing with vendors and local residents eager to get their hands on the day's fresh produce. With the assistance of an English-speaking guide, engage with these vendors and shoppers, learning about their daily routines, while getting the inside track on the most delicious ingredients to try.
  • A visit to the Plaza de Armas, located in Santiago's historic center. There's a lot of history within the four corners of this expansive stone plaza, as it was founded all the way back in 1541. Nearby sits the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church circa 1748, with towering twin bell towers dominating the north side of the plaza.
  • Ascend to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal. Hop on a cable car to the top of this hill that sits high above the city.  Enjoy the 360° panoramas and take plenty of photos, as these are the most incredible views in Santiago.
  • Enjoy dinner in the fashionably bohemian enclave of Barrio Bellavista. This is the trendiest neighborhood in the city.  Find a diverse array of funky cafés, international eateries, and high-end restaurants here.

Day 2: Fly to Puerto Montt and transfer to Puerto Varas

The village of Puerto Varas
The village of Puerto Varas

After breakfast at your hotel in Santiago, depart on a short flight to Puerto Montt, a port city in southern Chile that is also known as a gateway to the Andes mountains and Patagonian fjords. Upon arrival, meet your English-speaking guide, who will transport you in a private vehicle to Puerto Varas.

From here, drop your luggage at the hotel, enjoy lunch, and then rejoin your guide for a tour of the charming little village of Puerto Varas, next to Llanquihue Lake. Enjoy the village’s mix of German architecture and Mapuche indigenous cultural influence.

If there's extra time in the afternoon, head out of town for other scenic stops for views of the snowcapped Osorno Volcano. At the end of the day, drive back to your hotel in Puerto Varas to explore the "Ciudad de las Rosas," or City of Roses, at night. 

Day 3: Visit Osorno, Petrohué Falls, and Lago Todos Los Santos

Lago Todos Los Santos
Lago Todos Los Santos

Today's excursion leaves from Puerto Varas, along Llanquihue Lake, and northeast toward the Osorno Volcano. Along the way, pass the mouth of the Río Pescado (Fish River), the villages of La Poza, and Los Riscos. Once you reach the small town of Ensenada, begin the ascent of Osorno Volcano, stopping at different sights until you reach the Ski Center and the Osorno Volcano Mountain, located 4,068 feet above sea level.

Afterward, the excursion continues with a stop at the nearby Río Petrohué Waterfalls. These thundering falls are an epic site. See, firsthand, how the raging waters crash against the large masses of crystalized lava that were formed by eruptions from the Osorno Volcano. The tour finishes at the Lago Todos Los Santos (Lake of All Saints) before returning to your hotel.

Day 4: Chiloé National Park Tour and overnight in Puerto Varas

Muelle del Alma
Muelle del Alma

After breakfast, a driver will pick you up to embark on a full-day tour to Chiloé Island, in particular, Chiloé National Park, one of its natural highlights. This 166-square-mile protected area encompasses a large portion of the western side of Chiloé. The region is notable for its vast Valdivian forest, comprised of southern beech and alerce trees.

The journey takes you to Playa Rahue to embark on a short hike to the famous Punta Pirulil. This lookout point offers sweeping vistas of the green Chiloé coastline and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Also found here is the symbolic Muelle del Alma ("Dock of the Soul"), a wooden boardwalk that rises over the grassland and looks out over the western edge of the island. Take a rest nearby as your guide recounts some of the local history and lore. 

Afterward, head back to the car and transfer to Quilque, an indigenous community. Stop at a local house for a traditional lunch. Then, later in the afternoon, there's one last stop in Chiloé National Park for an easy hike on the El Tepual Trail, which will take you along more boardwalks surrounded by stunning, temperate rainforest landscapes.

Afterward, return to your hotel in Puerto Varas, and the rest of the day is at your leisure.

Day 5: Fly to Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas

It's time to go deep into Chilean Patagonia! The journey starts in the morning with a private transfer to the airport at Puerto Montt. Catch a flight to Punta Arenas, a city located near the tip of Chile's southernmost Patagonia region. Due to its location on the Strait of Magellan, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Punta Arenas is often used as a base for excursions to the surrounding wilderness and Antarctica.

Upon arrival, head to your hotel, and the rest of the evening is yours to explore the city at your leisure. You're now in the major transport hub in one of the most beautiful regions of Chile. Founded in 1848 on the eastern shore of the Brunswick Peninsula, in its heyday, Punta Arenas was home to the creme de la creme of Patagonian society. Today, it's a tourist destination, and from here, you can easily access some of the most impressive natural attractions in Patagonia, like Torres del Paine National Park and Magdalena Island. There are also a number of sites in and around town that deserve your attention.

Suggested activities include:

  • Stroll the Plaza Muñoz Guerrero. This is a good starting point for a walk around the city. Not only is this leafy central plaza a gem (the pathways are lined with French street lamps and a statue of Magellan sits in the center), the surrounding architecture is impressive, as well. All around the plaza, there are neoclassical mansions, once owned by the monied sheep-ranching families of the 19th century.
  • Tour the Palacio Sara Braun, which is one such neoclassical mansion fronting the plaza. If you want to get an idea of just how much wealth the sheep trade generated in the 19th century, take a tour of this former home of the family Braun. Inside is a testament to luxury in the form of opulent dining halls and billiard rooms. 
  • Take a seaside walk. In recent years, Punta Arenas has revitalized its waterfront area, so come and enjoy the boardwalks and outdoor spaces, complete with artistic sculptures. 
  • Visit the Reserva Nacional Magallanes. If you're interested in an active excursion just outside the city, head a few miles west of Punta Arenas to this 33,000-acre forested reserve (known locally as Parque Japonés). There's a self-guided nature trail lined with lenga and coigue trees, and it makes for a great, brisk hike. 
  • Watch the sun go down at Mirador Cerro de la Cruz. This viewpoint overlooks the city all the way out to the Strait of Magellan. It's a great place to come and watch the sun go down over Patagonia.

Be sure to head out in the evening and enjoy a local dinner. Seafood is a staple, so sample some local specialties, like chupe de centolla (souffle of king crab), as well as oysters, scallops, and other shellfish.

Day 6: Magdalena Island, Marta Island and transfer to Puerto Natales

Visit the penguins on Magdalena Island
Visit the penguins on Magdalena Island

This half-day tour begins bright and early in the morning. Transfer from downtown Punta Arenas by vehicle to a pier on the Strait of Magellan. Then, board a vessel that will take you 18 miles northeast to Magdalena Island. On this island is Los Pingüinos Natural Monument, a protected area home to Chile's largest colony of penguins.

First, though, you will travel to Marta Island, located in the middle of the strait. It's home to a large colony of Patagonian sea lions. However, these aren't the only residents on this rocky outpost. Scout a number of seabirds, which include cormorants, skuas, arctic pigeons, and more.

Upon arrival at Magdalena Island, disembark and spend 1 hour onshore. Follow a 2,624-foot path to an old lighthouse that offers sweeping views of the Strait of Magellan. On your way, enjoy the company of the island's residents: a Magellanic penguin colony that can reach up to 170,000 inhabitants. There's no experience on earth quite like hiking alongside penguins near Patagonian waters first mapped by Magellan, and then made famous by Charles Darwin.

Afterward, return to the vessel and make the journey back, reaching Punta Arenas by midday. Following lunch in Punta Arenas, transfer to Puerto Natales and spend the evening at your leisure. 

Note: The order of the destinations you visit is subject to change on the day of the excursion.

Day 7: Milodon Caves and Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine

Early in the morning, depart Puerto Natales for the Cuevas del Milodón (Milodon Caves). The largest of this network of caves houses a replica of a mylodon, a giant herbivore that became extinct in the late Pleistocene era. Then, visit Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most beautiful protected areas on the planet. 

On an extensive, full-day tour, visit some of the park's main attractions, such as the Amarga Lagoon. Nearby, find the iconic peaks of the Horns of Paine (part of the Cordillera Paine), the glacially-fed Grey Lake, and the thundering waterfalls of Salto Grande. At noon, enjoy lunch at a restaurant in the park before continuing on the excursion.

At the end of the day, return to Puerto Natales.

Day 8: Torres del Paine - Full-day private tour

Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park
Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park

Today,  meet with your guide and embark on your own private journey around Torres del Paine National Park. Discover the unrivaled flora and fauna and impressive viewpoints at your own pace. Throughout the day, transport to different areas of the park known for impeccable viewing of the park's wildlife and stunning landscapes. Indulge in some short hikes, and stop for a picnic lunch along the way.

At the end of the tour, return to your hotel.

Day 9: Fly to San Pedro de Atacama and stargazing tour

Stargazing in the Atacama Desert
Stargazing in the Atacama Desert

This morning, make the transfer to the airport for your flight to the city of Calama, located in the far north of the country. Upon arrival, another driver will meet you for the 1.5-hour drive to the desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama. This is the embarkation point for all excursions and adventures into the Atacama Desert.

During the journey between these two places, witness some of the most evocative and ancient landscapes anywhere in the world. This high-altitude desert abounds with seemingly endless salt flats, painted hills that change color depending on the light, towering Andean peaks, and the volcanic Domeyko Cordillera, where flaming-red mountains create the base of Moon Valley.

Once in San Pedro, check into your hotel and relax for the remainder of the afternoon, until it's time for your first excursion. At the scheduled time, a driver will meet you for the 15-minute drive outside of town, and into the desert.

First, sit for a 20-minute presentation to learn some basic astronomy concepts. Then, head outside to the open Altiplano and learn how to identify various constellations. This desert plateau is an ideal spot for stargazing, due to its high altitude, at about 7,900 feet. Even seen from the naked eye, the stars here are more vivid than anything you've likely experienced before. The outing culminates with views of the sky through high-powered telescopes and binoculars. Spot a wide array of celestial objects, including planets, binary stars, spherical clusters, and others. Even better, do your stargazing accompanied by a glass of good Chilean wine.

At the end of this astronomical outing, return to San Pedro de Atacama.

Day 10: Atacama Desert - Visit lagoons and salt flats

The Chilean Altiplano
The Chilean Altiplano

Today, embark on a full-day excursion into the Atacama Desert. After breakfast, a driver will pick you up at the hotel to head to the first destination: Laguna Chaxa. Located 31 miles from San Pedro, this desert oasis sits in the middle of the Atacama Salar salt flats. Also here is Los Flamencos National Reserve. Even from afar, you can spot the Chilean flamingos that call this reserve home—their pink feathers shining brightly against the contrasting blue of the shallow water.

At lunchtime, the tour will stop in Socaire, an agricultural village famous for its simple adobe homes, rustic chapel, and slow pace of life. After the meal, the tour will continue toward the Altiplano (high plateau) lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques, which are located at 13,779 feet in elevation. You might feel a bit lightheaded, so try not to exert yourself too much, and be sure to drink plenty of water. Enjoy the panoramic views of an Altiplano desert surrounded by towering volcanoes, and busy with wildlife, like flamingos, foxes, and vicunas.

The last stop on the tour is a visit to the town of Toconao, an oasis with a climate ideal for the cultivation of native fruits and vegetables. Stroll the streets, shop for handicrafts, and admire local homes cobbled together out of volcanic rocks. Visit the white-washed church, with its famous three-story belltower. The church itself dates back to 1750, and has been declared a national monument. 

At around 6 pm, return to your hotel to enjoy the rest of the evening in town.

Note: The day's itinerary may vary, according to weather and road conditions.

Day 11: Atacama Desert - Tatio Geysers and Machuca Village

Sunrise over the Tatio Geysers
Sunrise over the Tatio Geysers

Today calls for an early start. Depart the hotel at 4:30 am for the 1.5-hour trip to the Tatio Geysers. Getting a jump on the day will reward you with an unforgettable sunrise over the Atacama Desert—the best time to visit Tatio. The contrast between the cold, outside temperatures and the boiling water of the geothermal field beneath the earth's surface causes the pillars of steam here to rise as high as 30 feet. 

At an altitude of 14,173 feet, the Tatio Geysers are the highest in the world. Take your time admiring these otherworldly landscapes, snap plenty of photos, and at the appropriate hour, breakfast will be served on-site. In addition, you can take an optional, relaxing soak in a natural geothermal pool—mother nature's jacuzzi.

On the return drive to San Pedro, stop at Machuca, a small village on the Altiplano whose residents have bred llamas and harvested Yareta (moss-like evergreen plants that can survive for thousands of years) for generations. It's a small-but-welcoming town, comprised of only about 20 homes and a simple chapel. Some locals sell crafts you can peruse, and you can admire the llamas in the area, as well as the flamingos that reside in nearby marshlands.

Then, return to San Pedro for lunch and spend the remainder of the day relaxing in town.

Day 12: Departure from Santiago

Goodbye, Atacama!
Goodbye, Atacama!

Savor your final day on the Atacama Altiplano and your last in Chile. Depending on the flight departure schedule, enjoy some extra time to explore San Pedro. If you haven't done so already, pay a visit to the noteworthy sights, such as the Museo Arquólogico (Archeological Museum), and La Casa Incaica, which dates to the early 1500s, and is the oldest structure in San Pedro. Both are located off the central plaza.

If you're feeling more active, perhaps indulge in some sandboarding or trekking on the surrounding dunes. Also, just 2.5 miles outside of town is the Pukará de Quitor, the ruins of a stone fortress that dates back to the 12th century. 

At the scheduled time, your driver will pick you up at the hotel and take you to the airport in Calama for the return flight to Santiago. Then, catch your connecting flight home. 

Map

Map of Chile: Lake District, Torres del Paine, & Atacama Desert - 12 Days
Map of Chile: Lake District, Torres del Paine, & Atacama Desert - 12 Days